School system unfit as agent of change

In the first decade of democracy,‭ ‬schools were charged with empowering children to appreciate diversity,‭ ‬understand their rights and responsibilities,‭ ‬and help transform the national character of South Africa,‭ ‬Dr Wendy Ngoma,‭ ‬CEO of Angle Tide Business Solutions reminded the Indlulamithi Research Conference.

To some extent,‭ ‬therefore,‭ ‬schools were seen as a vehicle for the promotion of social cohesion.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬Dr Ngoma indicated,‭ ‬the school system was hardly fit for this purpose.‭ ‬She highlighted how broader social,‭ ‬political and economic forces had combined to produce a basic education system that continued to marginalise poor communities.

Dr Ngoma cited the work of Prof Pam Christie at the University of Cape Town who argues that education policies have failed to shift inequality because,‭ ‬although access to schooling has expanded considerably,‭ ‬the poor quality of teaching in many schools and low learner retention rates have eroded this gain.

The levying of school fees,‭ ‬Prof Christie contends,‭ ‬has created a‭ “‬market-based,‭ ‬class-differentiated‭” ‬schooling system and the failure to provide top-up government funding for‭ “‬no fee‭” ‬schools means‭ “‬the right to basic education came to mean the right to attend the poorest funded and weakest performing schools‭”‬.

A new funding model for schools was needed in order to shift educational resources decisively in favour of the poor,‭ ‬Dr Ngoma asserted.‭ ‬In addition:

  • Education needed to be infused with a spirit of egalitarianism rather than the individualism that currently prevails.
  • The socio-economic barriers to exercising constitutionally guaranteed rights should be dealt with seriously.
  • Schools‭ – ‬which are so often a site of struggle and conflict‭ – ‬must not only be integrated into society but reconciled with society through active participation.‭

“Currently schools are like day prisons and very few people have interest in them,‭” ‬said Dr Ngoma.‭ “‬This is a call for broader societal interest and participation in schools with the aim of shaping them to advance the aspired values of social cohesion.‭”

The right to education is critically affected by the language of instruction in schools.‭ ‬Because English continues to be the dominant language of teaching many children are denied genuine access to education,‭ ‬especially if they are not exposed to English outside the classroom.

Dr Lindiwe Tshuma of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Enrichment Centre‭ (‬AIMSSEC‭) ‬elaborated on language as a success factor in basic education.‭ ‬Studies have shown that learners are more likely to become competent in English and Maths if they are taught in their mother tongue in the first few years.‭ ‬There is also some evidence from the Eastern Cape that mother tongue instruction in grades‭ ‬4‭ ‬-‭ ‬7‭ ‬may improve performance in maths,‭ ‬science and technology.

Despite the advantages of mother-tongue instruction,‭ ‬Dr Tshuma said there were major resource challenges to implementing the approach in South Africa.‭ ‬She pointed out that neither the official curriculum nor the relevant text books were available in the country’s most widely spoken indigenous languages.‭ ‬Furthermore,‭ ‬few teachers were equipped to provide tuition in the learners‭’ ‬mother tongue.‭